For anyone who’s been following innovation in the financial technology space, the word blockchain has become the buzzword du jour in the span of about 12 months. Conference sessions, news stories, regulatory testimony – they are all consumed with the underlying ledger technology that powers Bitcoin. It’s estimated that $1 billion has been invested in blockchain start-ups since the technology was introduced.
How did this happen and what about this particular technology has so many people in so many different industries tripping over themselves to develop new blockchain-based technologies?
To fully understand the practical potential for blockchain, it is important to first understand how it works and where it came from. In its simplest possible form, the blockchain is a digital platform for recording and verifying transactions. It traces its roots to Bitcoin, the digital “cryptocurrency” created in a 2009 whitepaper written by an unknown author or authors using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
The paper outlines the process of creating a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash that can be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. The key to maintaining the integrity of that system is a digital ledger that timestamps transactions by logging them into an ongoing chain of record, providing proof of all transactions on the Bitcoin network. This unbreakable, un-hackable, crowd-sourced chain of record is the blockchain.
Where this concept gets exciting is in its potential application across a number of different industries. The financial services space has been the fastest to adopt the technology, recognizing its potential to streamline cumbersome and costly processes like trade processing, clearing and settlement. This potential led the Bank of England to suggest that blockchain could be the “Internet of finance.” In describing the logic behind their thinking, the BoE wrote:
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“The key innovation in this regard is the introduction of a ‘distributed ledger’, which allows a digital currency to be used in a decentralised payment system. Any digital record of currency opens up the possibility that it may be copied and spent more than once. With conventional bank deposits, banks hold the digital record and are trusted to ensure its validity. With digital currencies, by contrast, the ledger containing the record of all transactions by all users is publicly available to all. Rather than requiring users to have trust in special institutions, reliance is placed on the network and the rules established to reliably change the ledger.”
Basically, what the BoE is saying is that blockchain has the power to remove all of the middlemen that are party to a transaction, creating a pure digital record that exists independent of any single institution and cannot be tampered with or exploited in any way. In that sense, blockchain is a dream come true for the entire financial system, addressing everything from too-big-to-fail to anti-money laundering and corporate transparency issues in a single, elegantly designed package.
It’s not just finance either. One group of big tech and finance companies has combined forces in the Open Ledger Project to create a wide range of different blockchain-style projects for different specialized needs, ranging from conventional supply chain management to basic administrative tasks like exchange of car titles. Some schools are even using blockchain to record students’ grades and share academic certificates. And, of course, there is already talk of tax being collected via blockchain at some point in the future.
In many ways, the business opportunities enabled by blockchain technology are not dissimilar in concept from other disruptive technologies built on the peer-to-peer model, such as Uber and Airbnb. And that’s where things start to get really interesting for blockchain. Like these other types of peer-to-peer applications, blockchain has the power to significantly disrupt the status quo by removing administrative layers from the banking and finance process, ultimately streamlining labor- and cost-intensive functions across a wide array of financial services. While we’ve yet to really see the first real Uber or Airbnb of blockchain emerge, there are dozens of different firms working to develop solutions based on the technology. Imagine what will be possible when they get the recipe right.